PARKERSBURG, Iowa (AP) — As they’ve done every August for 35 years, the players on Aplington-Parkersburg High’s football team are throwing themselves into the familiar, sweaty grind of Coach Ed Thomas’ brutal, two-a-day summer workouts.
The pop of linemen clashing after the snap still fills the thick, muggy air, as do the rhythmic claps and military barks of teenagers willing themselves through endless push-ups, jumping jacks and punishment laps, their faded red jerseys caked with mud and sweat.
All that’s missing is Thomas.
This is the first time in more than three decades that Thomas hasn’t graced the sidelines of the field that bears his name, known as “The Sacred Acre.” He was gunned down in June in the school’s weight room, and one of his former players sits in jail, accused of shooting him. Though his players hit the field as they know Thomas would have wanted — even using his playbook and the preseason workouts he penned — his absence is felt every day.
“The only thing different is not hearing his voice,” said the coach’s younger son, assistant coach Todd Thomas, who returned to Parkersburg to guide his father’s team. “The only thing we’re missing is his booming voice out there on the practice field.”
The Aplington-Parkersburg team will open its season Friday night, kicking off with a game against rival Dike-New Hartford. It will be televised nationally on ESPN and followed by just about everyone in the northeast Iowa town of 1,800 people. It’s also a critical moment for a team tasked with playing a season that’s about much more than wins and losses.
The 58-year-old Thomas was a one-time National Football League high school coach of the year, and among his former players are four playing in the NFL. He won state titles in 1993 and 2001. Players said they mourn the loss of their coach but are committed to living and playing as he instructed them so often.
“You’re not going to get anywhere if you just keep thinking about the past and just like, you know, keep feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn’t work like that,” 17-year-old senior running back Alex Hornbuckle said. “You have to pick yourself up and just keep going forward.”